Hansberry’s recognition of the close relationship between art and propaganda is the reason she chose the environment of the powerless as a backdrop for her work about American culture. Her objective was to be a spokesperson for those who, prior to Raisin, had no voice. The thought that anyone outside of the black community would care about the struggles of a black family in Southside Chicago, prior to the opening ofRaisin, was all but preposterous. Not only did Hansberry choose as the voice of her theme a black family (and a poor black family, at that), but she also threaded information about Africa throughout the fabric of her play, mainly through her most stable character, Asagai, Beneatha’s suitor from Nigeria.
Through Asagai (and sometimes through Beneatha), the audience gains valuable insight into African history, politics, art, and philosophy. Even the character of George Murchison glorifies, by default, the ancient African civilizations when he derisively mentions “the African past,” “the Great West African Heritage,” “the great Ashanti empires,” “the great Songhay civilizations,” “the great sculpture of Benin,” and “poetry in the Bantu.” Although George is being facetious, still he uses adjectives that praise and laud the accomplishments of a continent with which many theatergoers, at the time of the opening of Raisin, were extremely unfamiliar.
To structure her drama, Hansberry utilizes the traditional classic European dramatic forms: Raisin is divided into three conventional acts with their distinct scenes. Yet, Hansberry employs techniques of the absurdist drama — particularly in the scene in which a drunken Walter Lee walks in on Beneatha’s African dancing and is able to immediately summon a memory which psychically connects him with an African past that his character, in reality, would not have known. Walter Lee is able to sing and dance and chant as though he had studied African culture.
Hansberry’s skillful use of this momentary absurdity makes Walter’s performance seem absolutely plausible to her audience. Note also in this work that Hansberry refers to an ancient Greek mythological titan, Prometheus, then makes a reference to an icon of the American entertainment world, Pearl Bailey, and then a reference to Jomo Kenyatta, a major African scholar and politician, yet there is no loss of continuity because the audience is able to immediately perceive the connection.
A Raisin in the Sun, written by Lorraine Hansberry and produced on stage in 1959, marks a watershed moment in American theater. On the face of it, A Raisin in the Sun was not destined for success. With only one white cast member, an inexperienced director, and an untried playwright, Hansberry had difficulty finding financial backing for the play at a time when theater audiences were overwhelmingly white. It was an immediate success, however, and after several tours, it opened on Broadway, making it the first-ever Broadway play written by an African-American woman.
What makes Hansberry’s writing remarkable is not only her accuracy in capturing the racial dynamics of her time, but her foresight in predicting the direction black culture would take in subsequent years. The play’s setting covers a pivotal time period for race relations in America – after WWII and before 1959. When Americans fought in World War II, they were fighting to uphold equality for all…which exposed the hypocrisy of the very unequal conditions for blacks back home. Americans were only beginning to address these inequalities at the time Hansberry was writing, and she did a great job at capturing the mood of her time through only one family.
As discussed in the “What’s Up with the Epigraph?” section, the Younger family’s fulfillment/non-fulfillment of their dreams mirrors how black Americans as a whole had gained some concessions while still being oppressed in other respects. A character like Beneatha, however, is way ahead of her time. The play opened in 1959, remember, which is before all the feminists started demanding their rights, and before black Americans began embracing Africa as part of their identity. Beneatha embodies both movements before they ever existed.
One last note: A Raisin in the Sun is part of broader shift in black art towards depicting working-class, ordinary African-Africans. Previously, black intellectuals did not use literature, art, or the stage to portray working-class African-Americans for fear they would perpetuate undesirable stereotypes. Both poet Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry thought this was ridiculous; they felt that writing about lower class African-Americans would actually debunk the stereotypes. By focusing on the dreams and aspirations of one particular working-class black family, moreover, Hansberry was able to show audiences the universality of black aspirations while also demonstrating that their race posed a significant barrier to achieving those goals.
Why Should I Care about the following stats?
Follow us, as we take you into A Raisin in the Sun’s attic, where every single word from the play is stored, carefully wrapped, and inventoried. That’s right, folks, we have tallied every word that appears in A Raisin in the Sun, and what you see below is a list of some of the biggest stars, the most noteworthy words
Why would we do this? Well, we know this is a play about dreams. Dreams that are put on hold or made impossible by society. We know it is a play about fighting to make dreams come true. And that seems like a pretty good reason to care about this play. After all, we humans are expert dreamers. But we want to know what exactly this play is trying to tell us about the art of dreaming. So let’s take a gander.
The first thing we notice in our tally is how infrequently the words “dream” or “dreams” actually appear. Only fourteen times. This perplexes our detective minds, because we thought dreams were the star of the show. It looks like there are other things (and words) that get in the way.
We notice how often the word “I” shows up – 536 times. This makes sense to us – dreams can’t happen without an “I” involved. But “I” doesn’t hold a candle to the word “you,” which surfaces a whopping 794 times, earning a gold medal in word count. “We” and “they” appear a good deal too, but not nearly as much as “I” and “you.” From this, we can deduce that individual choices must matter a lot when it comes to dreaming.
So what does all of this tallying tell us? That individual choices can make or break dreams. In A Raisin in the Sun, Walter destroys the family dream by losing their money, but then restores the dream again by standing up to Karl and deciding the family should remain in their new neighborhood. So dreaming is a complicated and frustrating art, but it can lead to incredible victories. If we need a lesson on dreaming and on being brave enough to dream, a great first stop on the literary highway is A Raisin in the Sun.
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